Shaken and Stirred

Michael Metzger

Ambiguity and complexity can shake people up. But they also stir something. That’s why the creation story is a bit disorienting. The Christmas story should be as well.

In his new book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes describes how ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity captivate the imagination. Holmes is a Future Tense Fellow at New America and a former research coordinator at Harvard University. Nonsense describes a dynamic. What we don’t know often alerts us to patterns that otherwise go undetected. A little disorientation can be beneficial.

This is supported by research. Travis Proulx and Steven Heine, psychologists at Tilburg University (Netherlands), conducted an experiment in ambiguity where two different groups read Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor.” The control group read the story as Kafka wrote it. The second group read an alternative version that removed all references to death. That made the thrust of Kafka’s story unclear.

After reading, subjects were shown a series of forty-five letter strings and asked to copy them down. What subjects didn’t know was the strings contained patterns. Those who read the unclear or ambiguous version of the Kafka story found 33 percent more strings. This indicates people who have read a disorienting story tend to be more alert to patterns.1 Those who read unambiguous stories are less attentive.

This explains ambiguity in the creation story. Genesis opens with God creating the earth. It is initially described as formless and void, a Hebrew phrase with ominous overtones of God’s judgment.2 That’s weird. Something’s not right. But what?

Ambiguity continues as God places Adam and Eve in the garden. He instructs them to eat whatever they want—except the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That was forbidden knowledge. Why? What’s going on here? Read on… all the way to the last book of the Bible, Revelation.

In Revelation, chapter 12, a woman is about to give birth. An enormous red dragon crouches before her seeking to devour her child. This beast has a tail that “swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth” (v.4). Fortunately, the dragon is foiled and the child spared. What’s going on here? Read on.

The rest of Revelation 12 tells of a war that broke out in eternity past. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. The dragon—identified as the devil, or Satan—lost and was hurled to the earth. This is described in Isaiah 14 & Ezekiel 28, where a third of the angels, those who side with Satan, lose the war and are hurled to the earth. Now we see why the ominous overtones in Genesis. Evil is lurking on the earth. God remedies the situation by confining evil to a tree in a garden. It holds forbidden knowledge. There is power in not knowing. Don’t eat the fruit.

Jamie Holmes says there is power in not knowing. The creation story supports this. A little disorientation goes a long way toward alerting us to patterns. It ought to work the same way with the Christmas story. For example, while it might look ominous, why don’t we include a serpent figure, Satan, in our nativity sets? I’ll tell you why.

In the 19th century, Victorian writers, often Christians, romanticized the idea of “childhood” as something quite separate and distinct from adult life. They sanitized ancient stories for the sake of the kids by emasculating villains. Satan was erased from the Christmas story so that we wouldn’t feel too disturbed.

J. R. R. Tolkien warned that this “sprucing up” would ruin ancient stories.3 He was ignored and the Christmas story became syrupy, ho-ho but also ho-hum. Christmas artwork became saccharine, depicting a cherubic child in a bucolic setting. We now live in an age of ambiguity intolerance, a term coined by Else Frenkel-Brunswick, a psychologist at the University of California in the 1950s. No serpent, no viewers shaken. No shaken, no stirring. No difficult-to-discern patterns detected.

Could it be the growing indifference to the gospel is somewhat attributable to Christians being intolerant of ambiguity and complexity? Unlike a martini, mankind turns out better when shaken and stirred. The Christmas story ought to shake us up a bit.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (New York: Crown, 2015), p. 43.
2 Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), p. 106.
3 See J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” Andrew Lang Lecture (1938).

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8 thoughts on “Shaken and Stirred”

  1. Feeling shaken and stirred, I would appreciate your viewpoint as to why leaving out “death” in the Kafka story (i.e., not knowing) led to the readers being “more alert” but leaving out Satan from the Christmas story (i.e., not knowing) has the opposite effect. Thanks.

  2. Mike Metzger

    Jack:

    Good question. The key is ambiguity. Removing it in the Kafka story rendered the story unclear–ambiguous. Removing death in the creation story makes it seemingly clearer to most Christians. Removing death in the Christmas story makes it seemingly “safer” and sweeter to most Christians.

  3. an interesting connection. I think the over-desire for certainty is a deep defect that can grow over time in societies and in individuals.

    Unless we hit the wall and come to realize our demand for certainty was mostly unwillingness to trust God’s authority…

    on a societal level in the fall of communism and defection of many intellectuals in China in the last 20 years…

    on a personal level when a midlife crisis leads a man on a new journey to becoming a “wise fool.”

    Do you think Western affluence keeps us from hitting the wall and so we remain ambiguity averse?

  4. Yep, sadly the Herod’s killing of the babies, is another chapter. Yet, the Magi gifts,the stable and Bethlehem, set a contrast to inn and Jerusalem.

    A sobering thought from
    http://www.peace-ed-campaign.org/the-limitations-of-teaching-grit-in-the-classroom/

    So, what are those challenges? If a hypothetical classroom of 30 children were based on current demographics in the United States, this is how the students in that classroom would live: Seven would live in poverty, 11 would be non-white, six wouldn’t speak English as a first language, six wouldn’t be reared by their biological parents, one would be homeless, and six would be victims of abuse.,

  5. Mike Metzger

    Barnabas: Sobering stats.

    My wife Kathy (a reading specialist in a Title 1 public school) and I hosted an evening last week for teachers. Much of the discussion revolved around these issues as well as how we might help keep the best teachers in the profession. Sobering.

  6. Look forward to your further observations on state and status teaching, when you choose , Mike. Any observations on

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedagogy_of_the_Oppressed

    Noting the preface states “Accordingly, this admittedly tentative work is for radicals. I am certain that Christians and Marxists, though they may disagree with me in part or in whole, will continue reading to the end. But the reader who dogmatically assumes closed, “irrational” positions will reject the dialogue I hope this book will open.”

  7. Wow, I love coming back to catching up on your posts, and trying to do them all at once doesn’t do you justice – you deserve to receive comments that have fermented a few days – but hey – let me offer something on the spot anyway: “How to remain shaken & stirred”: having been a driven ministry-oriented believer “out of the box” since 16 and now 55, I can divide my 39 years into almost thirds: 1.) absorbing & proclaiming the story (witnessing for Jesus), the effort to proclaim well kept me sharp; 2.) realizing that even true brethren have way-different theological biases, now I’m shaken & stirred by how I’m different from them AND staying sharp in proclamation; 3.) where I’ve been a while now: now I’m picking up uncovering the puzzles in scripture’s texts, things that were otherwise disorienting & ambiguous are now becoming clear – and what I thought I nevertheless shared with my brethren despite our otherwise theological differences I really don’t share now – and they’re things I’ve never thought were there and have only found in the last 13 years – therefore I think I’m now seeing the patterns I should see – but all the while I’m still getting feedback from proclamation. So, the lesson I’ve learned is: never take the text for granted, read it hard for truth you may have missed: don’t accept ambiguity, and keep friction in your life by always proclaiming.

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